Social Exchange Theory – Saving the Orangutans
How does a lady saving Orangutans explain social exchange theory?
Hotlin Ompusunggu is a dentist with a remarkable story. If there was anyone who could explain how social exchange theory works, it’s her.There are few people in the world who can say they saved a rainforest. Hotlin is one.
And it all came about in quite an unusual way, starting with orangutans and ending with the most remarkable social exchange theory example we’ve read.
‘I wondered why we spend so much money saving orangutans. But I learned that the orangutan is the farmer of the forest, and the forest provides water for people, so it all comes back to people and conservation for human wellbeing’, said Ms Ompusunggu. ‘But you can’t be the farmer of the forest if there is no forest’.
Unfortunately, legal and illegal logging has continued for many years in the Gunung Palung national park, and it was expected to be gone in a decade. Home to over 10% of the world’s Orangutans.
The issue was not one person’s fault.
Multinational felling companies would take their quota of the forest, secondary contractors would take what was left (but not all). But then illegal loggers from the villages would take the rest. Once the ground was bare, corporations would torch it and use the land to produce palm oil.
Social exchange theory in action
Hotlin, being community-minded, decided to investigate why the local people were destroying the land. So she asked:
‘If the global community wants to help you to save the forest, what would you like help with? What do you need to enable you to protect the forest?
And their answer:
‘Affordable, accessible, high-quality healthcare’.
The villagers were very poor, access to medical treatment may cost a years wages. Now, imagine if your loved one is dying and there are valuable ironwood trees on your doorstep, what would you do?
Making the exchange
So Hotlin Ompusunggu came up with a solution: 70% off medical care for villages who stop logging. This is social exchange theory at its best.
Ms Ompusunggu created the incentive for medical care while removing the barriers to adoption. This made healthcare affordable for all. Then she devised a barrier to prevent unwanted behaviour: to benefit from the offer, the whole village needs to stop illegal logging.
“By providing healthcare as an incentive, we have removed one of the reasons for people to log the forest. But also it’s in line with what the community asked us for from the beginning,” she said.
The number of households involved in illegal logging has fallen from 1,350 to 450. At the same time, child death has fallen by two-thirds. Better still, they turn no one away. You can pay with seedlings and by working to support the reforestation effort. Exchange theory made it possible to balance the needs of different groups.
The success of the project has allowed Ms Ompusunggu to build a new medical centre, on the edge of the forest. And much medical staff work there for almost no money.